Kashmiri saffron, the new silver

Selling now at ₹3.25 lakh per kg, this sought-after condiment from Kashmir is costlier than precious metal

September 15, 2023 11:05 am | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Farmers pluck saffron flowers in Pampore

Farmers pluck saffron flowers in Pampore | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

Surveying the sprawling undulating highlands of saffron fields, Tariq Rashid, a schoolteacher from Gund Bal village, Pampore, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district is beaming. Rashid’s wife and two school-going sons are minutely evaluating the saffron crocus bulbs at their three-storey house to ensure that the 8-10 cm bulbs are separated. “The 9 cm bulbs are the best for saffron yield,” says Rashid. Saffron is one of the most delicately handled condiment crops in the world, and is hand-picked, mostly by women, between October and November.

Rashid, who comes from a village that has the highest number of cultivators — 79% — in the Valley, has every reason to smile. The best variety of saffron, a crop known as ‘red gold’ locally, is selling at ₹3.25 lakh per kg this year, a quantum jump from ₹0.30 lakh per kg in 2005-06. This makes saffron more costly than silver, which costs ₹72,800 per kg.

Saffron is becoming one of the rare spices in the world to compete and surpass the price of precious metal. For instance, 10gm of edible silver foil, varq, is priced at ₹700-₹800; saffron, for the same weight, touches ₹5,000.

Also read | This year, saffron fields to spice up tourists’ reel life in Kashmir 

The growing demand for Kashmiri saffron has come with a decline in production — it has dropped from 30,000-35,000 kg a few decades ago to a mere 4,000-5,000 kg now, according to G.M. Pampori, president of the Kashmiri Saffron Growers and Dealers Association.

Pampori attributes this to the conversion of land to orchards and housing complexes. Another factor that poses a major threat to saffron production is pollution from the proliferation of cement factories in Pulwama. A case in point is Khrew in Pulwama, which, according to research scholar Binish Qadri, used to grow 248 kg of saffron a year till 2004. “With seven cement factories established close to the villages of Pakhribal, Nagadore and Botthen, the production declined to a great extent. They hardly get 70 kg due to chemicals and dust from these factories,” he says.

Saffron is a labour intensive crop. It takes 40 hours of labour to produce one kg of saffron, which contains 4.5 lakh strands plucked from 1.5 lakh flowers.

The growing demand for Kashmiri saffron has come with a decline in production

The growing demand for Kashmiri saffron has come with a decline in production | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

Flavour and fragrance

Pampore, the main centre of saffron cultivation in Kashmir, is endowed with both natural highlands and loamy soil, allowing it to monopolise the market in the country since the introduction of the crop in 500 B.C.E. In fact, historians date its arrival prior to that and attribute it to Persian rulers. Jammu and Kashmir are the second largest saffron producing areas in the world (second to Iran) and the only place the spice is grown in the country.

“The red tip of the saffron strand is the costliest, because of its colour intensity, flavour and fragrance. Post-harvest, saffron is sun-dried, separated and graded by hand to ensure quality,” says Rashid. Each part of saffron has a distinct fragrance, colour (determined by presence of Crocin), flavour (determined by Safranal) and bitterness (calculated on the basis of Picrocrocin presence). Kashmir produces four main kinds of saffron: lacha, mongra, androciam and perianth. Mongra, with least floral waste, tops the chart and is exported.

The price rise has not been steady though. Kashmir saffron has witnessed a major fluctuation in pricing in the past two decades.

“There are two reasons for the price fluctuations: one, the production-demand paradigm, and two, adulteration, which was driving out real saffron from the market. Adulteration with glycerin, weed, synthetic strands and colouring agents resulted in a drop in price for Kashmiri saffron, which is better in quality than Iran’s crops,” says Qadri, who teaches at Cluster University, Kashmir, and has done extensive research on the saffron market.

In September 2019, Kashmir’s saffron got a GI tag, which became a game-changer in maintaining its quality and winning back the eroded faith of customers.

The red tip of the saffron strand is the costliest, because of its colour intensity, flavour and fragrance

The red tip of the saffron strand is the costliest, because of its colour intensity, flavour and fragrance | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

Cold storage and coding

In 2010, a ₹413-crore National Saffron Renewal Mission managed to increase the production to 4.42 kg per hectare over 2,100 hectares of saffron fields. Under the project, tube wells and sprinklers were set up. However, the agriculture department has failed to reach the target of six to seven kg per hectare. “The tube wells have grown dysfunctional. There is poor electricity supply for the pumps. The scheme is collapsing and necessary action has to be taken,” says Pampori.

However, official efforts are underway to control quality and ensure better marketing. The government has set up the India International Kashmir Saffron Trading Centre in Pampore for organised marketing and quality-based pricing. It offers a stigma separation unit and cold storage with coding. For the first time, the Valley has formal scientific post-harvest handling practices, which include drying, grading, and stamen separation.

Official figures suggest a gradual increase in production: the yield has gone up from 9.46 metric tonnes in 2009-10 to 15 metric tonnes in 2015-16 and 16.3 metric tonnes in 2022. “However, the area under saffron cultivation has remained the same, at 3,785 hectares,” says Qadri.

The national demand for Kashmiri saffron is to the tune of 100 metric tonnes and the gap is filled by Iranian saffron. “Iran’s saffron is cheaper than Kashmir’s,” says Qadri. “We need to focus on maintaining quality and upscaling to be able to compete in the world market.”

Battling climate change

Meanwhile, Kashmir’s farmers are experimenting with indoor farming to battle climate change. The Division of Agronomy at the Wadura campus of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir, is looking at ways to start indoor saffron farming and several researchers are working to introduce an indoor vertical system.

“In a 60 metre-long hall, it is possible to grow four metric tonnes of saffron bulbs. Indoor cultivation on just 100 sq.mt. can yield the same amount as outdoor cultivation on a one-hectare plot of land. However, successful indoor cultivation requires proper planning, infrastructure and management,” say university researchers Rifatun Nisa, Tanveer Ahmad Ahangar and Arif Hussain Bhat, who are working on the ambitious project. The researchers believe indoor farming techniques could mitigate the risks associated with unpredictable climate patterns for both the crop and the environment.


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